Impact: pathways, cul-de-sacs and beaten tracks
research impact as ‘the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy’.
As part of my ESRC application, I had to write a two page ‘pathways to impact’ document. This is now a common addition to all RCUK applications. Described in the Je-S guidelines as “detailing the activities that will increase the likelihood of potential economic and societal impacts being achieve”, research councils acknowledge that applicants don’t have crystal balls to see into the future, but they can think carefully about the ways in which their research might have impacts, as well as the steps they will take to ensure the maximum impact of their publicly-funded research. In recent days several people I follow on Twitter have chosen to write about ‘impact’ – why it matters and how to do it. The LSE even have a whole website dedicated to the subject. But to return to these blog posts.
The first is by Hilary XXXX who has written about the ‘cul-de-sac’ that is the communication and dissemination of publicly-funded research. I forwarded a link to this page to a peer. She asked me whether I think it depends on your career stage as to whether you can talk about ‘impact’, this partly prompted this post from me on my blog. I don’t think career stage should come into the discussion you have about impact. I was recently invited to talk at an ESRC first year conference for PhD students to think about impact from the get go. I couldn’t agree more. If your research is funded by the public purse (or even if you self fund) surely making sure it is accessible to as many people and organisations as possible is central. Whilst questions of Open Access are discussed all over the place, from journals asking for thousands of pounds to make your work available, to twitter discussions and stipulations in grant proposals/from funders. I don’t know how feasible or realistic it is to make our academic papers available. Rather how about identifying other means.
This is where the second blog post comes in. It has been retweeted several times and I do understand why, but I also see exactly where the comment about career stage comes into again. This is a professor talking about a BBC Radio 4 documentary. This programme will obviously reach a large number of listeners but I am not sure how many of us lower down the career scale will fair when submitting an idea for consideration. However the AHRC have teamed up with BBC Radio 3 for its XXXX. This clearly a step in the right direction.
So what can we do to have impact. Here a few small interventions to get us started. Things that have worked well for me in the past and that I would recommend anyone with a spare five mins on the train to work in the morning could employ:
• Social media: set up a Twitter account or Facebook page for your research, or you as a researcher. I am @DrHG and I’ll follow you. Get your friends to like your Facebook page – it certainly helps if the people closest to you know a little bit more about what you’re doing. After all if they aren’t researchers themselves they often give us some of the best and most honest feedback, applying our research to their own lives, careers, etc.
• Blogging and websites: set up a wordpress.com blog (other blogs are available). These sites are increasingly user friendly and like twitter and Facebook can be updated on the move via a smartphone – you can also link your online presence, creating a coherent brand. Further blogging helps to develop an accessible writing style.
• Talking shop: becoming involved in organisations that are relevant to your research – becoming a member of a society that relates to your work, providing the opportunity to share your research interests and findings, as well as help identify new sources and areas of study. A good example here is some work I’ve been doing with a enthusiast group and then the opportunity to present that work at their annual conference. Another way is to write something for their blog or newsletter.
• Open attitude: if we think in ‘silos’ or dream only of ‘ivory towers’, we are more than likely going to present our work at our disciplinary conferences only, publish in the top journals in our field and talk with those who are most relevant to our research. This approach obviously has its merits, but the greatest rewards are to be gained when seeing others who are sceptical of a social science approach, come round to seeing its merits and the value our research can bring. It means being open to surprise, serendipity and going off the beaten track.
Whilst we can’t all have radio shows, tv programmes, write popular books, we can do our best to ensure our research reaches and involves those who fund us – we may also find that the response we get makes us better researchers and improves the relevance of our research questions to our audiences. Some people have talked about academia on the one hand and the ‘real world’ out there. As a geographer, I don’t think people can in all honesty separate the two, after all it is what is in here not out there that counts.
So, I think that the term impact should some how become redundant, it should be a natural part of research in the first place, not an add-on to please funders. This obviously has wider implications when talking to colleagues whose work doesn’t have the same central theme of engageemnt, and with the REF the question of writing academic proposals for their impact fullness surely is to the detriment of the magic of academic research. There have been several blogs in this regard.
What I am saying, very inarticulateky, is, let’s see impact not as a box to be ticked but a way of researching to be embraced.